Waterford Distillery wants ‘terroir’ wine status for whiskey

The famed French principle of ‘terroir’ — that a distinctive flavour is imparted to wine by the natural environment in which it is produced — is being adapted to the production of whiskey by an Irish distillery.
Waterford Distillery wants ‘terroir’ wine status for whiskey
Waterford Distillery sources its barley from 72 Irish farms, including organic and biodynamically run farms, growing barley on 19 soil types.
Waterford Distillery sources its barley from 72 Irish farms, including organic and biodynamically run farms, growing barley on 19 soil types.

The famed French principle of ‘terroir’ — that a distinctive flavour is imparted to wine by the natural environment in which it is produced — is being adapted to the production of whiskey by an Irish distillery.

The Waterford Distillery is spearheading research into whether the internationally successful Gallic marketing concept can be applied to its locally produced whiskeys.

Enterprise Ireland, through the Innovation Partnership Programme, has funded a project with Waterford Distillery and Teagasc to investigate the potential of terroir in Irish whiskey distillates.

The study has been ongoing for the last 18 months and the findings are set to be published at a prestigious conference in Edinburgh next year. (The conference has been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.)

“The idea for this project came from Waterford Distillery. The owner felt that if he distilled barley from different farms in different areas with different soil types, the raw distillate would have its own distinctive flavour,” said Kieran Kilcawley, adjunct professor at University College Cork’s School of Food and Nutrition and principal research officer in food quality and sensory science at the Teagasc Food Research Centre in Moorepark.

Waterford Distillery sources its barley from 72 Irish farms, including organic and biodynamically run farms, growing barley on 19 soil types.

Using a pioneering digital logistical system to keep track, each farmer’s crop is harvested, stored, malted, and distilled separately — the concept being that the distillery captures each farm’s terroir, the subtle character shaped by micro-climate and soil

“This research is setting out to prove that raw distillate from different areas and different soil types would have different flavours,” said Prof Kilcawley, who specialises in flavour chemistry and who is working on the project with another Teagasc scientist, Maria Kyraleou, and with a range of expert bodies.

“The belief is that each different batch of barley would have its own flavour, depending on where it is grown,” said Prof Kilcawley.

This is the same concept at work in France’s wine industry, in terms of terroir, where it is accepted by the wine industry that wine from grapes grown in different regions has its own distinctive flavour.

“This research is essentially looking at why the aromas of different raw distillates are different and whether it’s linked to the terroir effect,” said Prof Kilcawley, who added: “What we have found, so far, is that when the same barley is grown on different sites in different environments, there is a distinctive difference between each batch, in terms of its aroma profile.

“Effectively, what we have found is that the environment in which barley is grown has a distinctive impact on the final flavour of the distillate,” he said.

The study’s findings are set to be published at the prestigious Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference in 2021.

Renowned throughout the world, Irish whiskey (uisce beatha Eireannach) is one of the oldest spirit drinks in Europe and is a geographical indication product approved by the EU, which is a designation used to identify a product whose quality and reputation are linked to its geographical origin.

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